Government Regulation: A Growing Threat To The Environment

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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America’s environmental health is increasingly jeopardized by a little-known threat: a wide range laws and regulations, some of which are even supposed to protect the environment. For a sense of how this works on the ground, consider the Hopkins family of Georgia.

The Hopkins family started acquiring timberland, mostly in southeast Georgia but some in northeast Florida, over 100 years ago. The family’s outstanding stewardship has created a haven for wildlife, including deer, turkey, gopher tortoise and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Among the Hopkins’ landholdings are 3,500 acres that are part of the fabled Okefenokee Swamp, most of which is a federal wildlife refuge, seven miles of forest and swamp along the St. Marys River that creates a border between Georgia and Florida, and 500 acres occupied by the woodpeckers.

The Hopkins family leases most of its land for hunting, and, in the spirit of civic-mindedness and generosity that characterizes many landowners, allows Boy Scouts to camp and launch canoes along the St. Mary’s River, hosts educational forestry tours, and provides hunting opportunities free of charge for wounded military veterans.

As thanks for their exceptional environmental stewardship and generosity, the Hopkins family has been or may be punished by laws and regulations that have negative environmental consequences. The “big three” are all federal: the estate tax, Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.

Most people are unaware of the estate tax’s effect on the environment, but the tax is “highly regressive in the sense that it encourages the destruction of ecologically important land in private ownership,” according to Michael Bean, senior Interior Department official. “In order to pay estate taxes, cash-poor inheritors of ranches, farms, and forests must often liquidate timber assets, subdivide the property, or otherwise destroy ecologically valuable land that had been cared for by owners who had truly loved it.” Land is generally of less environmental value if it is subdivided.

In the 1960s and 70s the Hopkins family was hit by the estate tax four times, and each time the family had to pay significant taxes on the same pieces of land — all of which led to thousands of acres of forest harvested prematurely to raise funds to pay the tax. This “destroyed our forest management plan because we had to cut stands we didn’t want to cut” according to Joe Hopkins, managing partner of the family partnership lands. The family is anticipating another massive estate tax bill when the last member of Joe’s father’s generation passes away. An agreement called a conservation easement could lower the family’s estate tax liability, but “we are not interested in easements because we’ve given enough,” states Joe, such as when his father died in 1961 while reforesting the land, and easements can complicate management.

The Endangered Species Act is generally thought of as protecting magnificent species like the bald eagle, but the sad reality is the Act’s penalty-based approach creates strong incentives for landowners to make their property inhospitable to species. The Hopkins family receives no compensation for its 500 acres, worth more than $1,000,000, locked-up due to the Act’s protection of an endangered species — which is often regarded as a public good. The Hopkins family has little incentive to allow other trees to mature to the point where they will attract red-cockaded woodpeckers. In addition, the gopher tortoise may be listed under the Act, despite that it is thriving on the family’s lands. Georgia’s recommended tortoise habitat management practices, which look a lot like federal guidelines, if made mandatory would make commercial forestry less viable.

But these two species are only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more species across the Southern forests that could be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Punishing landowners for conserving wildlife, such as through the estate tax and Endangered Species Act, is the best way to harm this country’s biodiversity because endangered species depend most heavily on private land for their habitat.

While the the estate tax and Endangered Species are bad enough, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent massive expansion of federally regulated water under the Clean Water Act, known as “Waters of the United States,” is a huge threat to the Hopkins family because much of their land, which is in flat or in low-lying areas, would likely be subject to federal regulation. If “Waters of the United States” survives court challenge, forest management will become increasingly difficult and financially unviable.

All of these pressures facing the Hopkins family result in a growing threat to the environment. “We don’t plan to sell our land, but if things get too difficult and expensive because of regulations, we will have no choice but to sell,” states Joe Hopkins. “There are a lot of doctors and lawyers in Jacksonville [Florida] who would like to buy a few hundred acres and build a weekend house.” Subdividing, selling and developing land is the sad result forced on many landowners by this country’s laws and regulations that have unintended adverse environmental consequences.

“My life as well as that of my ancestors has been spent working to protect and sustainably manage our lands,” Hopkins notes. “This isn’t just any piece of property; it is our property that we have fought to maintain through two world wars and numerous conflicts, the Great Depression and numerous recessions, multiple massive wildfires, damage from beetles, drought, flooding, and wind damage. Having survived all of this, I can’t imagine what could be worse than to have to fragment and sell portions of our property because of the federal estate tax and other regulations.”

The solution to the problems facing the Hopkins family and many other of this nation’s landowners is to substantially reform or even eliminate the laws and regulations that are causing environmental harm. Whether legislators will see the wisdom and environmental benefits of doing so remains to be seen.